Friday, December 31, 2010

A Note From The Guru: Looking To 2011

As 2010 closes out, I wanted to again take a moment and write a few non-music related notes to you all, the readers that keep this site going.

As longtime readers know, this site originally began as a challenge to myself two years ago, and the way in which it has grown into a beast all its own could never have been predicted.  I try each day to bring something exciting and insightful for all those who love music and are always seeking something new or remembering a song they know by heart.  I hope that over the last two years, this has been achieved.

Looking to the future, I have decided to give the site/project another year of life, though 2011 will bring a number of changes.

1. General Site Stuff
In two years, I've yet to miss a single day, and I am not about to start missing days now.  I was lucky enough this year to publish from 5 different countries and much like the U.S. mail, there is simply nothing that will keep me from getting these daily posts done.  The insanity that is this site will continue, and in 2011, I will pass 1,000 straight that point, I might give myself a pat on the back...

2. New Website
I am beginning the process of moving all of the data to a new website which will have both an easier URL, as well as a few other features.  I will NEVER have ads or anything like that I my site.  Though I have had offers, I feel it goes completely against everything that I want this site to be.  So, when the new site is ready, you'll see it forwarding.  I hope to have it in place by mid-February.

3. The Book
Yeah, yeah yeah, I know that I promised it in 2010, but honestly, things just got nuts and I am not done editing the damn thing.  However, you can look forward to nearly  400 new and updated album reviews and other madness.  The book is currently well over 1,000 pages, and I am hoping to have it in hand before the first of March.

4. The "Gurucast"
I've received a lot of great feedback on this over the weeks, so I am going to continue it each Monday.  There may be a special guest in mid-February, but that is still being discussed.

5. "Deep Cut Friday"
In order to help my sanity a bit, I am going to declare Friday's "Deep Cut Friday" at The Daily Guru.  This will give me a chance to delve deeper into the catalog of some of my favorite artists and present songs that many may have missed over the years.

6. Where You Come In
As I said, this site will NEVER have ads, but in 2010, my readership doubled from 2009.  I would really like to double again in 2011, but that is where I need some help from you, faithful readers.  If you have friends, co-workers, strangers that you think might be into the site, please pass along the URL.  As geeky as it may sound, when I see my site traffic, it is what keeps me energized to keep this going.

So in short, thank you all for reading this, whether it is daily or weekly or once in awhile.  I never thought anyone would really have interest in this sort of thing, but clearly, many of you do, and it is each of you that I write for every day.  Nothing in this world brings me the same satisfaction that I get from writing endlessly about the songs I love, and I hope that my writing provides you some sort of smile or momentary release from the stress of your day.

Until 2011...or tomorrow...whichever comes first...

December 31: AC/DC, "For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)"

Artist: AC/DC
Song: "For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)"
Album: For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)
Year: 1981

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There must always be some reason for a song to be written, as unlike other art forms, there must be some form somewhere that the music will follow.  Over the course of recorded history, the themes for songs have become as wide as the mind can imagine, yet most bands find a few themes they enjoy, and these become consistent.  The idea of "wine, women, and song" is certainly the most popular grouping, and few bands have brought these themes out in as many different ways, and with as perfect a feeling of menace and danger as one finds in the catalog of AC/DC.  Though most bands would call it quits with the passing of their lead singer, AC/DC pressed on, and one can make the case that much of their post-Bon Scott work is their finest, as Brian Johnson proved to have a voice and attitude that were worthy of filling those shoes.  It was with Johnson on board that the band began to further expand their subject matter, and while every band at some point acknowledges how much they appreciate their fans, it seems that very few bands understand the fact that without those fans, they themselves would not have careers.  Thankfully, there are a few moments in music history where the true connection between the band and fans becomes clear, and few groups in history have as rightfully and perfectly shown their appreciation for their fans as one finds in AC/DC's 1981 single, "For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)."

The entire heart of the sound of AC/DC has always been built around the tremendous guitar playing of Angus Young, and "For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)" is no different, as even in the opening riff, there is a tension, yet sense of grandeur that is rarely found elsewhere in music.  The almost scattered progression that he plays highlights he almost unsettling anticipation of the song, and it is nothing short of hard rock perfection when the rest of the band all fall onto the song at once.  It is this massive sound that the band achieved throughout their career that personified the hard rock sound, and the way in which Angus and Malcolm Young play along with one another easily makes them one of the most impressive guitar pairings in history.  Joined by the rhythm section of bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd, and AC/DC proves time and time again that their sound is instantly recognizable and absolutely timeless.  On "For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)," the band again manages to being a dark, heavy sound, as the music seems to almost push the listener around, yet simultaneously create a mood of an uprising.  In many ways a "rock and roll rallying cry," the song demands crowd interaction, and few songs were as perfectly crafted for throwing your fist in the air in rhythm with the music.  It is this unique way in which AC/DC was able to make a song just as important to the band as it was to the crowd that sets "For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)" so far apart from other musical achievements.

As previously mentioned, filling the shoes of any frontman is one of the most impossible tasks one can be asked to do, and yet the way in which Brian Johnson almost effortlessly found his space in the band is a testament not only to his talents, but to the band as a whole.  Though there is an easily distinguishable difference in their voices, they share the same ability to hit the highest notes on the scale, as well as bring a gritty, almost sinister tone to the songs.  On "For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)," every aspect of Johnson's voice is employed, from the forceful sound he brings to the verses to the soaring screams that one can experience during the bridge sections of the song.  In many ways, it is this latter tone that defines everything it means to be a rock star, and it is much the reason the song remains such a treasured tune.  Furthermore, though many have tried, no other band has been able to compose as perfect a tribute to the fans as is found here, and there are few lines more memorable than when Johnson sings, "...we're just a battery for hire with a guitar fire, ready and aimed at you, so pick up your balls and load up your cannon, for a twenty-one gun salute..."  In live settings, the true spirit behind the song becomes more clear, as the band is notorious for bringing out air cannons and firing them on the down-beat, as they and the crowd all yell "FIRE!" together.  It is moments like this that define the true rock and roll spirit, and it the reason that nearly thirty years later, "For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)" remains an absolute rock classic.

Truth be told, there are a handful of interpretations as to where the song took its influence, as most believe the source was from ancient Roman times, as gladiators in the arena were told to say, "ave Caesar, morituri te salutant," which roughly translates into "Hail Caesar, we who are about to die, salute you."  While this interpretation certainly makes a great deal of sense, Angus Young claims that the actual source of inspiration behind the song was when he overheard cannons being fired on a television in another room during the wedding ceremony of Princess Diana during work on the song.  This makes sense as well, and also gives a reasoning for the cannons on stage, as well as on the cover of the album.  Regardless of the actual source of the song, it remains one of the greatest and most powerful in history, and it has become the groups' closing song, sending the crowd away in the best way possible.  The song perfectly captures everything that makes rock music so great, and it also highlights AC/DC's ability to bring a heavy sound in a manner all their own.  Over the decades, a number of covers of the song have emerged, and a handful of professional sports teams also use parts of the song for their entrance or "score" music.  Though AC/DC have a long list of unforgettable hits to their name, none pack the same punch or feeling of connection than one finds in their now-standard show closer, 1981's, "For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)."

Thursday, December 30, 2010

December 30: Smashing Pumpkins, "Tonight, Tonight"

Artist: Smashing Pumpkins
Song: "Tonight, Tonight"
Album: Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness
Year: 1995

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Over the decades, there have been a number of bands that seemed to come out of nowhere and quickly dominate the entire world of music with their unique sound.  It is often the ability to stay at this status that becomes the most daunting task, and those bands that are able to succeed stand as some of the most unforgettable groups in all of music history.  One of these bands would define an entire style, perhaps a generation, and their songs sound just as fresh and exciting today as they did when they were first released.  Presenting what the music media deemed as an "alternative" to the "grunge" sound that was dominating the charts in the early 1990's, few bands are more closely associated with that era than Smashing Pumpkins.  For nearly a decade, the band explored and refined their distinctive blend of hard rock which was often closer to "dream rock" than anything else, and it is this style that helped the band to obtain one of the most wide-spread and fervent fan-bases in history, and to this day, they hold an almost mythical status in the minds of many.  With each of their albums having an amazing sound and personality all its own, it is difficult to even take a single record that is their finest, yet one can make the case that it is their triple-vinyl release, Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness that cemented their place as true music legends.  Standing as one of the most stunning records in music history, it is the albums' fourth single, 1995's "Tonight, Tonight" that shows every reason why Smashing Pumpkins deserve all the credit and revere that they receive.

From the moment "Tonight, Tonight" begins, and on nearly every second of the song, the odd juxtaposition that "is" Smashing Pumpkins is abundantly clear.  While they retain an edge and grit in their sound that keeps them tied to the hard rock, almost "grunge" sound, there is a soft beauty and musical complexity that places them in a category all their own.  This is most apparent on "Tonight, Tonight" in the full string section (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) that dominates much of the songs' backing sound, and even with the full presence of rock-style guitars and drums, it manages to fit together perfectly.  It is largely due to the unique, almost jerky rhythms set forth by drummer Jimmy Chamberlin that gives "Tonight, Tonight" its tone and mood, as he gives the song a great sense of movement, changing the feel with perfectly placed fills and pauses.  This tone is made more impressive with the subtle, yet mesmerizing bass playing from D'Arcy Wretzky, and this pair is without question one of the finest rhythm sections in history.  The interlocking guitars of James Iha and Billy Corgan serve as a perfect finish to the overall sound, and from the almost nervous feel of the main riff and bridge sections to the more subtle textures they create, there is simply no other group in history that was able to achieve the extraordinary blend of sonic bliss whilst retaining a heavier edge quite like Smashing Pumpkins do on "Tonight, Tonight."

Though one can easily make the case that it is the musical arrangement that defines "Tonight, Tonight," there is simply no understating the importance that Billy Corgan and his voice bring to every Smashing Pumpkins song.  Possessing one of the most instantly recognizable voices in history, over th years Corgan garnered and almost cult-like status, and it was often the words he was singing that outshone how he sang.  On "Tonight, Tonight." Corgan works the entire vocal scale, from a more reserved, almost elegant tone on the verses to an unrestrained celebration of sound during the chorus sections of the song.  It is his ability to convey the emotion of the song so clearly that sets him apart from his peers, and there is a sense of honesty and pain that also makes songs like "Tonight, Tonight" impossible to forget.  Furthermore, the almost philosophical, yet easily understood lyrics which he pens made his songs accessible to all, and on "Tonight, Tonight," he spins some of his finest words, such as when he sings," ...and our lives are forever changed, we will never be the same, the more you change the less you feel..."  In many ways, Corgan's words come off as far more reflective here than on his previous efforts, and there is a deep emotional connection that one can feel on"Tonight, Tonight."  It is the fact that he is able to achieve this feeling, without the heavy distortion or almost odd musical arrangements that one finds on the bands' earlier songs that make "Tonight, Tonight" stand above the rest and why it retains its punch and impact more than a decade later.

Truth be told, few bands better defined what it meant to be an "alternative rock" band in the 1990's better than Smashing Pumpkins, and yet one can make the case that if they are the definition of such, then no other band can receive the same title.  While one can connect them in a number of ways to many other groups, when the complete package is taken into account, there is simply no other group in history that even comes close to their overall sound.  Though their commercial breakthrough, 1993's Siamese Dream, is without question the record that opened the floodgates to an entirely new sound in popular music, it was their next record, Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, that presents the group at the height of their musical and creative talents.  Nearly every song on the six sides of vinyl is brilliant in its own right, "Tonight, Tonight" serves as a fantastic summary of the bands' unique musical vision, and few groups have ever been able to combine a hard rock sound with full orchestration in as perfect a manner as one finds here.  In nearly every aspect, "Tonight, Tonight" retains an almost poetic quality that helps to highlight the bands' uncanny ability to create deep, introspective moods, and it is this characteristic which further set them aside from their peers.  Boasting a pair of the most influential albums of the 1990's, few bands better define the entire generation than Smashing Pumpkins, and everything that earned them their iconic status can be experienced in their dreamy, almost blissful, yet hard rocking 1995 single, "Tonight, Tonight."

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

December 29: Wire, "Three Girl Rhumba"

Artist: Wire
Song: "Three Girl Rhumba"
Album: Pink Flag
Year: 1977

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One of the more interesting aspects of any new trend in music is that as soon as it hits its most popular point, one can find it already branching out in a number of directions.  It is this occurrence that often yields the most fascinating music, and also what can separate a singular sound from an entire revolution in music.  While it is often seen as depicted as one of the lower points in the history of music in terms of creativity, once one looks past the handful of bands that "made it big," one can find massive amounts of diversity in sound within the punk rock movement, even during the year it is said to have "exploded," 1977.  During this time, on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, bands were trying to approaches to musical creation, all working under the overall punk ethos, and one can make the case that the level of creativity was far beyond that of many other periods in music history.  With this being true, there are few bands that pushed the limits of music and created a true musical masterpiece as much as one finds in the music of the band Wire.  Knowing few true peers, Wire seemed to ignore nearly every convention of music an it is one of the aspects that makes their 1977 debut, Pink Flag, such an extraordinary musical achievement.  Filled with many songs that have become true punk anthems, few tracks better define the band and their unique sound than one finds in Wire's 1977 song, "Three Girl Rhumba."

From the very first notes of "Three Girl Rhumba," one can immediately hear the unique way in which Wire simultaneously conforms and contradicts the punk ethos, and the fact that the band was able to pull this off in such brilliant fashion is not only a testament to their talent, but can also be seen as the punk ethos in its purest form.  The main guitar riff, played by Bruce Gilbert, is simple yet unforgettable, and more than a decade later, it would be completely ripped off for a song that would nearly top the pop charts.  The fact that in both cases, it was the riff that made the song so distinctive shows what can be done with simplistic arrangements, as it remains far superior to many songs which are more musically complex.  Drummer Robert Gotobed furthers this straightforward feel, as his playing brings an unwavering, almost marching feel to "Three Girl Rhumba," and at the same time, there is almost a start/stop tension that runs throughout the song.  These moods are given more depth by the playing of bassist Graham Lewis, as he mimics the guitar pattern, also dropping small fills here and there, completing one of the most sparse, yet satisfying musical arrangements in history.  The fact that Wire is able to walk this line and not have the song feel incomplete shows their mastery of the punk ethos, and it is this "no filler" approach that makes "Three Girl Rhumba" one of the songs that perfectly epitomizes this entire musical theory.

Adding to the stripped down, yet complete feel of the song, vocalist Colin Newman separates himself from his peers by simply sticking to his style.  It is largely due to his vocal performance that one becomes better aware of the odd shake and twist that defines "Three Girl Rhumba" as a song, and while there is a sense of vocal defiance in his performance, at no point does it come off as lazy or disinterested which often plagues punk singers.  Within the voice of Newman, one can find a complete commitment to the musical vision of the band, and the attitude and swagger he brings to the song is nothing short of perfect.  While many are quick to write off performances such as this, the fact of the matter is, when one digs deeper into his overall presence on the track, not only is his vocal work superb, but there is also a quirky, yet mesmerizing abstraction within the lyrics that he sings.  Completely ignoring the "verse-chorus-verse" convention, "Three Girl Rhumba" is almost more of a series of free associations, and it helps to make it seem as if the words themselves are almost another instrument on the song.  It is with this in mind that one can feel the mood shifting moreso than emotion within the music when Newman sings, " you ain't got a number, you just want to rhumba, and there ain't no way you're gonna go under, go under go under..."  This in many ways is the true brilliance behind "Three Girl Rhumba," as the song proves better than nearly any other in history that if is often how you say something as opposed to what you are saying.

While the core riff found on "Three Girl Rhumba" perfectly captures the spirit of the era, anyone familiar with the music of the 1990's will likely instantly associate the riff with Elastica's song, "Connection."  Few times in music history has there been as clear a case of a complete lifting of a musical progression, and after all the legal issues were handled, it did give many other people exposure to Wire that may have otherwise missed out on their amazing brand of punk rock.  The fact of the matter is, a number of massively important bands were somewhat lost in the glare of the two or three bands that "represented" punk rock in 1977, and many of those left in the dark have turned out to be far more influential as the decades have passed.  Truth be told, there were few albums release in that year that even remotely compare to the overall impact and sound found on Wire's Pink Flag, and even more than thirty years later, the album remains difficult to top on any level.  Filled with "to the point" musical arrangements and some of the most interpretive and abstract lyrics in the history of the punk sound, one can easily make the case that this record was the most original of all of the "first generation" of U.K. punk bands.  Each song on the album has gained its own reputation as the years have passed, but few better define the band and have withstood the test of time as well as one finds in Wire's 1977 song, "Three Girl Rhumba."

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

December 28: Truckee Brothers, "Gritty Pretty"

Artist: Truckee Brothers
Song: "Gritty Pretty"
Album: Double Happiness
Year: 2007

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While there are many aspects of the music industry that make very little sense, perhaps the most inexplicable is the way in which some bands are vaulted to commercial success by record labels, while others are not given the same backing.  Within a modern sense, the only logic that one can deduce is that the more original, emotional, and truly talented that a band is, the less likely it is that they will gain such support.  The fact that "real" talent has become a "second place" to image is in a nut-shell the biggest problem plaguing the music industry today, but thankfully there are a number of bands that remain to prove the fact that this "real" talent is still alive and well.  Bringing some of the most refreshing and powerful pure rock and roll of the last decade, few bands in the modern music scene packed a similar punch and beauty than one was able to experience in the short-lived band, the Truckee Brothers.  Their 2007 release, Double Happiness, is just that, a record that packs far more than twice the impact and creativity than one can find anywhere else, and the album still knows few rivals in the years that have passed since its release.  Working all across the musical spectrum, the record boasts a wide-range of sounds and styles, and this is a testament to the exceptional level of talent within the band members.  While their more mellow and reflective songs are not to be missed, one can experience the true "rock majesty" that is the music of the Truckee Brothers in their 2007 song, "Gritty Pretty."

Within the opening of "Gritty Pretty," one can quickly hear many of the bands' influences, as the song wastes no time setting the tone, with echoes of bands like The Who and The Stooges becoming instantly apparent.  It is this ever-present edge that in many ways defines the band, as they perfectly balance the attitude of the punk rock scene with the sonic beauty of the hard rock era.  This unique musical assault is led by the duo of Cady (Christopher Hoffee) and Peat (Patrick Dennis), and the way in which their guitars interlock defines everything that makes rock music so enjoyable.  Combined with the brilliant rhythm section of bassist Greg Friedman and drummer Matt Lynott, the sound that the quartet produce is nothing short of mesmerizing, as well as a refreshing return to the roots of rock and roll which seem to have been forgotten by a majority of the modern music industry.  All of "Gritty Pretty" feels as if it is riding the edge of chaos, and it is this energy and mood that push the song far beyond anything else recorded at the time.  This urgency never relents even for a moment, and one can easily feel and understand the impact that such a song would have had in a life environment, as it is without question as powerful and catchy a rock song as has ever been written.  Yet much in the spirit of punk rock, the song is completely to the point and void of filler, keeping this compact and not "overstaying" its welcome.  This clearly conscious choice is the final piece that solidifies the exceptional talents and performance that one finds on "Gritty Pretty."

Along with sharing duties on guitar, the team of Cady and Peat also trade off vocals throughout the song, and few pairings can boast as captivating a sound as one can experience on "Gritty Pretty."  With neither vocalist possessing what one would consider a "classic" sound, it is their uniquely appealing voices and stunning harmonies that make their sound even more distinctive.  The way in which the tenor sounds from Peat fuse together with the more baritone-based voice of Cady is absolutely exceptional, and it gives the song even greater depth, as their voices move both together and apart during various parts of the song.  This ability to craft a complex vocal sound is in many ways one of the most definitive aspects of the music of the Truckee Brothers, and their purposeful concentration on this area along with the more traditional musical arrangements serves as proof to their superior musical knowledge and ability.  It is also within the strict cadence with which they sing that the song gains complexity, as their shared vocals add a secondary rhythm to "Gritty Pretty."  There is also an attitude and swagger that runs underneath the entire vocal performance, and it is this aspect that makes the song nothing short of a classic, grabbing the listener from the first line and not releasing the grip until the song ends.  Such musical mastery is a more rare and rare occurrence as the decades pass, and this is perhaps the final piece of evidence that one needs to fully understand why the Truckee Brothers stand so far above their peers.

Throughout all of Double Happiness, it becomes abundantly clear that the level of creativity in this band was far beyond that of nearly any other act recording at the time.  Whether it is in the multiple rhythmic patterns, the soaring guitar chords, or the absolutely phenomenal vocal harmonies, all of "Gritty Pretty" serves as a reminder that "real" talent and music will always triumph over more manufactured sounds, and the song remains a power, refreshing statement that such musical integrity has not been lost.  However, within the music of the Truckee Brothers, one can also clearly hear a unique musical voice, as in many ways, their songs work against the more traditional musical norms, with a large emphasis falling on the choruses, making them just as important to the overall song as the verses.  In many ways, there is so much going on throughout songs like "Gritty Pretty" that it requires multiple listenings to fully understand and appreciate the entire work, and the fact that this occurs simultaneously with such strong ties to punk rock makes it even more unique a musical experience.  The energy never relents even for a moment, and it seems at times as if the band is actually trying to derail the song, giving it a mood that truly knows no rival.  From the heavy, yet unquestionably melodic guitar passages to the high-octane rhythm section to the absolutely brilliant vocal work, there is literally nothing from the past decade of recorded music that can stand as an equal to the Truckee Brothers and their 2007 song, "Gritty Pretty."

Monday, December 27, 2010

December 27: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #52"

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(Left Click (PC) or Command-Click (Mac) to save it to your's about 75MB)

One hour of amazing music and SOME commentary from "The Guru" himself.

Tracklist (all links are to my reviews of that band, song, or album) :
1. AC/DC, "For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)"  Live
2. Grinderman, "Go Tell The Women"  Grinderman
3. Deltron 3030, "Positive Contact"  Deltron 3030
4. Chuck Berry, "No Particular Place To Go"  Chuck Berry Is On Top
5. The Evens, "Mt. Pleasant Isn't"  The Evens
6. Boysetsfire, "Walk Astray"  The Misery Index: Notes From The Plague Years
7. Marvin Gaye, "What's Happening Brother"  What's Going On
8. Cee-Lo Green, "Bright Lights Bigger City"  The Lady Killer
9. Black Flag, "I've Had It"  The First Four Years
10. Dustin Kensrue, "Pistol"  Please Come Home
11. The Pogues, "Fairytale Of New York"  If I Should Fall From Grace With God
12. Lou Reed, "Dirt"  Street Hassle
13. Blue Scholars, "Evening Chai"  Blue Scholars
14. U.K. Subs, "Emotional Blackmail"  Peel Sessions 1978-1979
15. Joe Strummer And The Mescelaros, "Silver And Gold"  Streetcore

Sunday, December 26, 2010

December 26: Curtis Mayfield, "Future Shock"

Artist: Curtis Mayfield
Song: "Future Shock"
Album: Back To The World
Year: 1973

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For certain artists, their impact was so wide-reaching and extended across the generations that there is simply no way to do them justice in any sort of tribute.  These performers were not just musicians, but writers, producers, and social figures that stretched well beyond the musical realm, making them truly worthy of the title of "icon."  Even within the elite group of musicians who are worth of this title, a few stand out about the others, and it is this small pack that represent the most important performers in all of music history.  Though many do not realize the impact he had before he became a solo artist, there is not another musician in history that can compare to the influence or recorded history of the one and only Curtis Mayfield.  From his work at Motown Records and his time in The Impressions, to his truly revolutionary work as a solo artist, Mayfield re-wrote the books on what could be accomplished musically, as well as being one of the earliest and most outspoken advocates for the struggle of African-Americans in the late 1960's and 1970's.  Due to this fearless musical approach in every sense of the word, many of his songs have become true classics, and most of them remain just as fresh and powerful today as they did when they were first released.  Though there are many great songs to choose from, few bring a similar impact and representation of his cautionary forecast of events than one finds in Curtis Mayfield's classic 1973 single, "Future Shock."

Arriving on the heals of his chart-topping Superfly album, this record, and the single specifically, return Curtis Mayfield to a more direct, often more potent musical presentation, and though it did not reach the same commercial success as its predecessor, the songs on this album are just as, if not more powerful.  As is the case with a majority of his solo work, "Future Shock" revolves around an extraordinary, winding bassline, and the groove is established immediately.  The way in which the drums work around this feeling is absolutely perfect, and there is often a two-step, strangely danceable sound that comes from the combination found within the rhythm section.  Over this fantastic groove, Mayfield drops even more funky onto the track with a twisting guitar progression, highlighted by his perfect use of a "wah" pedal.  Though it is almost overused throughout music history, it is on songs such as "Future Shock" that one can experience the ideal balance and implementation of the sound.  The final element that sets "Future Shock" apart from the pack is the way in which Mayfield incorporates the horn section into the song.  The way in which it fits perfectly into the rest of the sound is no doubt due to his work at Motown Records, and the strangely bright accentuation that the horns provide is the final element that makes "Future Shock" a song that knows no musical equal.

While "Future Shock" stands as one of his finals musical creations, as is almost always the case, the song is pushed to the status of "musical perfection" due to the brilliant vocal and lyrical work that Curtis Mayfield brings to the track.  His often high-pitched voice is unquestionably one of the most instantly recognizable in all of music history, and the emotion he conveys on this song highlights the power he was able to bring without needing to be loud or aggressive.  The vocals on "Future Shock" perfectly match the music in terms of the sway and groove found within, and there is a great amount of soulful frustration that can also be heard in his singing.  Furthermore, there is a strong sense of warning that comes across in the song, and "Future Shock" stands today as one of the most gritty and unapologetic glimpses into the urban life of big cities in the early 1970's.  Mayfield pulls no punches, as he leaves nothing to subtlety when he rips into deep, yet powerful lines such as, "...god bless the father, ain't got the strength to be bothered..."  The overall feeling of helplessness that he brings to the lyrics makes "Future Shock" dark in a manner that was unprecedented, and countless artists would attempt to convey this mood in the years that followed.  On a larger scale, Mayfield's warning still echoes true today, especially when he sings, "...we got to stop all men, from messing up the land, when won't we understand, this is our last and only chance..."

It is songs such as "Future Shock" that proved that while Curtis Mayfield presented a rather quiet, refined demeanor, there was a bite and aggression in his songs that remains unparalleled to this day.  His ability to craft such scathing commentary into his songs is what led many to give him the nickname of "Gentle Giant."  The music he created throughout his career served as the blueprint for soulful funk, and one can hear its progression even from his early days as part of the team at Motown Records.  Though many point to his creations on Superfly as his crowning achievement, in many ways, the album misses much of his true talent, and one can also see his songs there as a bit restrained in content.  His follow-up release, 1973's Back To The World, is very fitting in title, as Mayfield gets even more critical of the state of the world, as well as the plight of African-American's living in the big cities of the United States.  Giving what can be seen as a forewarning of the problems to come, "Future Shock" hits perfectly from every angle, as the deep, dark groove from the music serves as an ideal backing for the stark, almost helpless feel that the lyrics and singing convey.  The fact that the groove is never lost, even amongst these rather grim words is a testament to just how amazing a composition one can find in the song, and it is the juxtapositions and unique genius found on 1973's "Future Shock" that solidify Curtis Mayfield's status as one of the true icons in all of music history.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

December 25: Devo, "Jocko Homo"

Artist: Devo
Song: "Jocko Homo"
Album: Mongoloid (single)
Year: 1977

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Though most critics do not readily accept its existence until around 1979, the fact of the matter is, at the same time that punk rock was exploding across the globe, the sound that would be called "post punk" was also already present.  Furthermore, it is not very hard to find this sound in that brief time period, as one of the most important bands in the development of both post-punk and what would be termed "new wave' released what is without question their finest album in July of 1978.  Having already released a few singles, the world of music was forever changed when Akron, Ohio's own Devo gave to the world their absolutely unparalleled and indescribable debut, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!  Bringing a strong base in the punk rock ethos, yet playing a sound that was unlike anything else previously heard, many will correctly argue that the only way to accurately describe the sound of Devo is to define it by the name of the band itself.  Filled with wild tempos and shifts in speed, heavy synthesizers, and quirky, yet mesmerizing lyrics, Devo quickly proved that much like any other genre, there were no limitations as to what could be achieved in the name of punk rock, as long as one refused to give in to the norms set forth by the masses.  Though every song on that album has its own unique feel, there is perhaps no other song in their entire catalog that better defines them than Devo's earlier single, 1977's, "Jocko Homo."

From the moment that "Jocko Homo" begins, it is clear that this band has very little in common with anything that had been recorded previously.  The in-your-face, wild, almost intimidating keyboard riff that opens the song immediately sets it apart, and it is also in this riff that one can completely understand everything that makes the sound of Devo so amazing.  Played by band founder Mark Mothersbaugh, there is an off-kilter, unsettling feel to it that shows the other side of what could be done with the instrument.  The almost mechanical sounding guitars from Bob Mothersbaugh and Bob Casale also defines the bands sound, as the strict, jerky sounds created here give the song an almost futuristic feel.  This is made even more prominent by the rhythm section of bassist Gerald Casale and drummer Alan Myers, and it is this pairing that stands today as one of the greatest teams in history.  The way in which the entire band comes together on "Jocko Homo" is nothing short of stunning, as their almost robotic precision and the somewhat "geeky" feel to their music is what would kick-start the entire "new wave" movement.  Furthermore, the band fits in perfectly with the other "post punk" bands, as though they sound nothing like their peers sonically, there is a dark mood that runs throughout their music that fits perfectly with this style.  There is no other song in the Devo catalog that holds the same place as "Jocko Homo," and more than thirty years later, it remains fresh and perhaps the most beloved song in the bands' catalog.

While there have been many singers who can be instantly recognized, few can do so in the same manner as Mark Mothersbaugh.  Though he presents a rather wide range of vocal ability, his staggered, dry sound usually perfectly mimics the sound which the band has put forth.  His voice also almost always contains the same nervous, unsettling feeling, and yet there is something about his voice that makes his performances completely captivating.  However, even in his unique vocal brilliance, there is something about his performance that is very "everyman" in nature, and this is perhaps the reason that Devo gained such a dedicated following, as there is something about the band and their music that is far more accessible that most other bands.  Along with his fantastic vocals, Mothersbaugh is never short of witty lyrical content, and "Jocko Homo" leaves very little to the imagination as he critiques many aspects of modern life.  As the song progresses, Mothersbaugh gets sharper with his attacks, pointing to the idea that as humans, we have evolved little from apes.  He goes as far as saying, "...god made man, but he used the monkey to do it, apes in the plan, we're all here to prove it..."  It is also on this song that he drops one of his most iconic lyrics, when he sings, "...monkey men all, in business suits..."  It is this theme that defines Devo's sound and "mission," and one can easily make the case that "Jocko Homo" features Mothersbaugh at his finest.

Truth be told, there are at least two distinctive studio versions of "Jocko Homo."  The first was released as the b-side to 1977's Mongoloid single, and following its success, the band re-recorded a faster, more polished version for their 1978 full length debut record.  While both of these two versions follow the same musical path, the earlier take has a rough edge that is missing from the latter, and many see this as the reason the first is far superior.  Regardless of which version one hears, perhaps the most intriguing and distinctive aspect of the song is the mind-boggling 7/8 time in which a majority of the song is played, with a brief shift to the more traditional 4/4 during the bridge section.  The fact that Devo was able to use this rather awkward time signature and in it, craft such a masterpiece, serves as a testament to their exceptional level of talent, as well as just how much they disregarded very notion of what could be done within the punk rock style.  Furthermore, it is this fact alone that cements their place within punk rock, as the true spirit of the sound is that of not accepting the limitations of others and completely committing to your own vision.  Few bands have been able to pack as much meaning and musical brilliance into as compact a song as one finds here, and it is much the reason that more than thirty years later, Devo's 1977 song, "Jocko Homo" remains completely unrivaled and defines the sheer genius that cements their place as true music icons.

Friday, December 24, 2010

December 24: De La Soul, "The Magic Number"

Artist: De La Soul
Song: "The Magic Number"
Album: 3 Feet High And Rising
Year: 1989

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Though it is often overlooked due to the explosion of new sounds that came from the rock-based styles of music, the late 1980's and early 1990's also provided one of the most diverse times within the hip-hop genre.  Groups like Run-DMC and N.W.A. had already set the standards, and there were countless "copycat" acts attempting to work their way up the charts, and yet at the same time, there were  a handful of emerging artists who were trying to prove that hip-hop knew no limits.  Many of the most unforgettable and influential acts in hip-hop history came into their own during this era, and few were more impressive or unexpected than the New York-based trio know as De La Soul.  With their wild blend of funk, psychedelic, and often inexplicable sounds along with their brilliant rhyming, many hailed them as the "future" of hip-hop music, and countless bands that followed can be seen as being heavily influenced by their sound.  Wasting no time in establishing themselves as one of the premier acts in all of hip-hop, their 1989 debut, 3 Feet High And Rising, stands today as one of the greatest albums in hip-hop history, and the diversity in sound and style found on the album remains unparalleled.  Though each track on the record is absolutely fantastic, few songs better define the group and their extraordinary ability than one finds in De La Soul's 1989 single, "The Magic Number."

In quite literally every sense, De La Soul ignored all of the norms and limits that had been placed on hip-hop in general, and their overall musical knowledge and diversity is highlighted here in the wide range of samples that one can hear on the song.  While it may seem like a "generic" hip-hop drum loop, if one listens a bit closer, it is instantly obvious that the drum break used here is actually a sample of Led Zeppelin's, "The Crunge."  There is also a vocal sample from Johnny Cash's, "Five Feet High And Rising," and this is also the source of the albums' name.  Mixed in with these rather unorthodox samples, one can also hear James Brown's, "Funky Drummer, Syl Johnson's, "Different Strokes," and even comedian Eddie Murphy doing, "Hit By A Car."  Obviously, this is all in play along with the most well-known sample on the song, as "The Magic Number" is based around and upon the song of the same name from the classic television series, Schoolhouse Rocks!  The way in which the legendary Prince Paul mixes all of these sounds together to make the track is nothing short of stunning, and there is not another song anywhere in music history that has a similar sound or feel.  The funky, groovy feel to "The Magic Number" gives the song a light-hearted feel, and this was certainly a stark contrast to the rising sound of "gangsta" rap at the time.  Furthermore, as the lead track on the album, it set the tone for the record, as well as De La Soul's career, and "The Magic Number" is as close to hip-hop perfection as one will find anywhere.

Yet, as fantastic as the musical arrangement is on "The Magic Number," it is the vocal work from De La Soul that made them legends, and their extraordinary level of talent is as good here as anywhere else in their career.  The trio of Posdnuos, Trugoy The Dove, and Pasemaster Mase stands today as one of the greatest hip-hop crews ever, and the way in which they play off one anothers' rhymes defines everything that is great about hip-hop in general.  While each of the three emcees has their own, distinctive style, the way in which they blend together is where the "magic" of De La Soul as a group lives, with each member clearly caring more about the end product than they are about stealing the spotlight.  This helps "The Magic Number" to attain a far lighter and almost fun mood, and the song remains as much of a breath of fresh air today as it did when it was first released.  Even with this more positive mood, the emcees instantly prove that they are without question some of the most talented in history, as the way in which they twist words and drop wild references in their rhymes remains unrivaled to this day.  Whether they are calling out nostalgia like Punky Brewster or pontificating on the fact that celebrities should not be role models, the groups' rhymes are as diverse as their sound, and it is this exceptional level of quality, combined with the diversity that makes De La Soul, and specifically "The Magic Number" such important parts of music history.

Even more than twenty years later, De La Soul's 1989 debut, 3 Feet High And Rising, remains the most original and adventurous album in all of hip-hop history.  From the eclectic range of samples used throughout the album to the unrivaled rhymes and themes on the tracks, the group ignored everything that had been set as "law" in the hip-hop community and truly made the album that they thought best represented their sound.  This commitment to their own vision yielded stunning results, and one can see a number of sub-genres of hip-hop that formed in the following years as a result of their efforts.  In many ways, it was De La Soul's record that proved that one need not sacrifice heavy subject matter or skillful rhyming schemes in favor of diverse musical arrangements, and this in many ways reflects the changes that were occurring at the same time in the rock-style genres.  Serving as the ideal lead-track, "The Magic Number" not only showcases the groups' exceptional level of talent, but it also gives a brief insight into their overall philosophy, which is now referred to as the "D.A.I.S.Y. age" which is said to stand for, "da inner sound, y'all."  Regardless of the exact meaning or term for what they were doing, there was no denying that it was a musical revolution, and the effects of their work can still be felt and heard within hip-hop music today.  Though each song on the album is amazing in its own right, De La Soul have rarely sounded better than they do on their lead single, the self-defining and genre-reshaping classic, "The Magic Number."

Thursday, December 23, 2010

December 23: Eddie Hazel, "Lampoc Boogie"

Artist: Eddie Hazel
Song: "Lampoc Boogie"
Album: Jams From The Heart EP
Year: 1975

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Though it is the norm within jazz, it is almost unheard of to have a lengthy instrumental become the defining moment for an artist in any other genre.  Furthermore, for an artist to be able to achieve a lyricless feat multiple times in their career, whilst still remaining an icon in that style can be seen in only one or two cases.  While this is exactly the case in the life of one of music' most amazing performers, it remains largely unnoticed due to the rarity of copies of the recordings in question.  In 1971, Eddie Hazel almost instantly gained status of "guitar god" due to his breathtaking performance on Funkadelic's unforgettable instrumental, "Maggot Brain."  While most would consider this moment enough for an artist to make a career from, years later, Hazel left Funkadelic and began recording what stands as one of the most phenomenal, yet hard to find solo records ever made.  All this work would eventually lead to 1977's Game, Dames, and Guitar Thangs, and yet it was the EP of material recorded two years earlier that would boast his finest moments.  Titled Jams From The Heart, the 1975 recordings are just that, a series of four tracks that find Hazel getting comfortable with his new backing band.  With two of the songs clocking in at more than eleven minutes, it is clear that Hazel enjoys the practice of completely fleshing out a song and following it wherever the music takes the band.  In many ways standing as a partner song to "Maggot Brain," Eddie Hazel can be heard at the peak of his talents in his 1975 recording, "Lampoc Boogie."

Overall, "Lampoc Boogie" is as loose a song as one will find anywhere, and it is this aspect that makes it quite clear that these songs were little more than jams between the performers.  However, the fact that it yielded such results not only speaks to the exceptional level of talent within the band members, but also to the "magic" that can come from playing without a specific end-point and letting the music carry the song where it will.  Instrumentally, "Lampoc Boogie" is about as simple as one can find anywhere, with the song featuring nothing more than Hazel's guitar alongside a two-man rhythm section.  Though on other songs on the EP, the band is featured more, on this track, they embody the complete idea of the term "backing band."  The bassline is buried behind Hazel's guitar, though the groove is not lost, and this is a combination of exceptional playing from both the bass as well as Hazel's strong base in funk music from his previous bands.  The drumming on "Lampoc Boogie" does manage to stand out, and this is largely due to the fact that the player in question utilizes his entire kit, from the "standard" parts to a heavy emphasis on the cymbal work, as well as points where it sounds as if he is actually playing parts of the stands.  There is limitless creativity throughout "Lampoc Boogie," which would be developed completely on the full-length release, and the three band members clearly have a chemistry that is unlike any other recording in history.

However, one can easily make the case that the rhythm section could have been anyone, or even non-existent on "Lampoc Boogie," as Eddie Hazel gives the performance of a lifetime, and the song remains today as the only recording of any artist that can share the same breath as his work on "Maggot Brain."  While that performance was amazingly deep and soulful, "Lampoc Boogie" offers a brighter, more hard rock style of instrumental, and it is due to this nature that Hazel proves to be without question one of the greatest guitar players in history.  Hazel dances all over the fret-board, infusing elements of jazz, blues, funk, and hard rock into a single, stunning performance.  While Hazel and the band keep returning to the same musical phrase in the jazz style, the fills, both large and small, that he brings showcase both his talent as well as his endless creativity as there is a diversity in these fills that remains unmatched to this day.  Much like on "Maggot Brain," Eddie Hazel is able to convey a great deal of emotion through his playing, and there is an uplifting feel to the song, making it one of the most invigorating performances ever captured on tape.  There is a perfect amount of distortion on his guitar, giving it just enough "fuzz" for the song to retain an edge and mood that helps the song appeal to a much wider audience.  Whether it is due to the mood or the awe-inspiring playing he presents throughout the nearly twelve minutes, "Lampoc Boogie" is a song one must experience firsthand to properly appreciate.

"Lampoc Boogie" also stands as one of the most difficult songs in history to actually find on an album.  Though originally recorded in 1975, "Lampoc Boogie" did not see the light of day until the sessions were released in 1994.  This release was rather small, and copies were quickly snatched up by collectors.  This only added to the mystique of having Eddie Hazel solo recordings, as Game, Dames, and Guitar Thangs was already one of the most highly sought albums in history.  In 2004 Rhino Records re-released that album in a limited edition run, and this release also contained the four songs from James From The Heart.  Again, it quickly sold out, and those who were lucky enough to get a copy were more than pleased with the results.  Thankfully, with the rise of digital music, the catalog of Eddie Hazel's solo work has become a bit more accessible, and it is perhaps the difficultly one encounters in tracking down these songs that adds to the overall magnificence that one finds on each and every track.  Regardless of which version one finds, there is simply no way to overstate the impact of "Lampoc Boogie," as it is one of the most stunning and truly moving guitar tracks ever recorded, and one can easily make the case that the songs' only equal is Hazel's earlier work on "Maggot Brain."  Without question one of the most elite and influential guitarists in all of music history, there is no other music experience that is quite like Eddie Hazel's 1975 recording, "Lampoc Boogie."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

December 22: Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros, "Arms Aloft"

Artist: Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros
Song: "Arms Aloft"
Album: Streetcore
Year: 2003

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While there is certainly something to be said for consistency and "riding" the musical wave from album to album, one can also make the case that taking time between recording can be equally as important to the creative process.  Though many bands made their name by pushing out an album every year, there are other groups that are able to step away for a few years, and then return with a fresh sound that is equally as impressive from year to year.  However, this idea of taking a break can also be essential if a well-known performer is attempting to reestablish themselves as a solo artist.  Though it was not exactly a planned set of events, it was perhaps the fact that there was more than a decade layoff between bands that enabled the late, great Joe Strummer to return with such a stunning new sound.  Having made his legend as the voice of punk rock whilst fronting "The Only Band That Mattered," one can easily make the case that after The Clash was disbanded in 1985, there was "no need" for Strummer to have to prove his talents elsewhere.  Yet after more than fifteen years of laying low, Strummer returned with his new band, The Mescaleros, and the sound he brought with this band can easily be seen as authentic to the punk rock ideals as one will find anywhere.  Though the three albums the band released are all worth owning, none can compare to the emotion and sound found on 2003's Streetcore, and everything that makes the band amazing, as well as proof that the spirit of punk was still alive and well, can be found in Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros anthem from that album, "Arms Aloft."

Released almost ten months to the day after Joe Strummer's sudden, tragic passing on December 22, 2002, Streetcore is a celebration of his musical brilliance, and the musicians with which he surrounded himself prove to be without question some of the most talented on the planet.  "Arms Aloft" opens with a simple, soft guitar progression from Strummer, Martin Slattery, and Scott Shields, and the song quickly drops into a full-force rock explosion that is far beyond that of anything else being released musically at the time.  The song has an edge and a sense of movement that embodies the spirit of punk rock, yet it is far more melodic than nearly anything else in Strummer's career.  The rhythm section of bassist Simon Stafford and drummer Luke Bullen complete the sound, and The Mescaleros move as a single unit in a way that is nothing short of extraordinary.  "Arms Aloft" has an amazingly full sound, and yet each instrument has its own space, making the song one of the most balanced ever.  It is the fact that the song has this balance, yet is able to switch the emotion and energy of the song so effortlessly that serves as a testament to the level of talent within The Mescaleros, and one can easily make the case that Strummer never sounded better.  There is a sense of urgency that runs underneath the entire song, and it is in this energy and mood that one can easily make the link to the punk sound, as well as Strummer's finest moments with The Clash.

Yet as amazing a backing band as one finds in The Mescaleros, the focus never moves far from the voice of Joe Strummer, and even after so many years out of the spotlight, he quickly proves to be just as captivating and inspirational as ever.  The raw, uncompromising sound of his voice is what defined him, as well as The Clash, and this aspect is still very present on "Arms Aloft," and one can make the case that he sounds more relaxed and more refreshed here than on any other recording.  Furthermore, the simple, somewhat rough way that his voice comes across makes this, like his other work, easy to relate to, and "Arms Aloft" is without question one of the most catchy and powerful songs he ever performed, with the chorus bordering on anthemic status.  Along with his "everyman" voice, the lyrics of Joe Strummer were always able to straddle the line between the deeply profound and invigorating, and "Arms Aloft" furthers this trend, with Strummer presenting some of the finest lyrics of his career.  Singing directly to the feeling of desperation and exhaustion at "life itself," Strummer reaches out to the listener when he sings, "...and just when you were thinking about slinkin’ down, I’m gonna pull you up – I’m gonna pull ya round..."  This is exactly what occurs though the song, as the music and vocals instantly raise the spirits of the listener, and it is this ability that defines the true impact and brilliance of Joe Strummer.  The way in which Strummer is able to convey the mood and energy of "that scene" even to those who have no idea about what he is speaking further supports how phenomenal a recording one finds here, and one can even make a few arguments about "which" city of Aberdeen he sings.  Regardless, the true power of music to pull people from even the lowest points is abundantly clear on "Arms Aloft," and it is Strummer's voice that is the key to the song becoming uplifting and unforgettable.

Though all of Streetcore can be seen as more musically complex than anything Joe Strummer did with The Clash, if one listens to the music and energy, it is clear that this is as much of a punk record as ever been released.  It is albums such as this that prove that punk rock is not about a look or a sound, it is about a spirit, and there has never been another performer that better represented that spirit than Joe Strummer.  Throughout what would be his final recordings, there is a vibrant, yet relaxed sound from Strummer, though his moving roar is never far away, and one can clearly hear the amount of fun he is having with The Mescaleros.  This places Strummer into a grouping with the likes of Muddy Waters and a number of other music legends whose final albums stand as the finest of their career.  Though his work with The Clash was unquestionably groundbreaking and some of the greatest music in history, with The Mescaleros, Strummer seems to achieve an entirely new level of musicianship, and his lyrics have an impact that is truly beyond words.  Perhaps it was due to his hiatus that he was able to completely reinvent himself, as musically, The Mescaleros are a far cry from the pulverizing sound of The Clash, yet it is due Streetcore that one can fully understand that regardless of the style, the spirit of the music is what really counts.  Bringing an extraordinary celebration of rock and roll with as much of an anthemic and moving quality as anything he achieved with The Clash, one can only stand in awe of the greatness found on Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros 2003 song, "Arms Aloft."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

December 21: Rush, "2112"

Artist: Rush
Song: "2112"
Album: 2112
Year: 1876

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In the case of nearly every band in history, there is some tangible element that can be noted as the "reason" that they found fame as musicians.  Whether it was due to a single member of the band having a talent or personality that was far beyond that of their peers, an overall sound that was drastically different than that of the time, or perhaps a skill for lyrics that were unforgettable, there must be some aspect that makes the band unique.  Yet it is when a number of these possibilities come into play simultaneously that one can find the greatest bands in history, and few, if any other bands can boast a similar claim than that which brought the band Rush to fame.  Without question, the band stands today as one of the most technically skilled and musically adventurous in history, and a large number of their songs have attained "classic" status.  Each member of the trio can be argued as the finest of their generation on their particular instrument, and it is often the non-traditional time signatures in which the band plays that makes their songs so distinctive.  Though they had already released a few albums by 1976, it was their effort that year that forever changed the face of music.  Bringing together their love for science fiction and their extraordinary musical talents, there is simply no other recording in history that can even hold a candle to the title track from Rush's 1976 album, 2112.

When it comes to the idea of "epic" songs, there are none int he same category as the entire "2112" saga, as it is largely seen as separated into seven different movements.  It is within these parts that the entire musical range of the band is evident, as they vary from distorted hard-rock passages to spacey musical explorations and interludes to slow, melodic moments of reflection.  Even when the band is buried in a deep instrumental passage, such as during the opening four and a half minutes, the amount of emotion that comes through in the music is nothing short of stunning.  This is largely due to the exceptional talents of guitarist Alex Lifeson, and it is his work here that stands as all the evidence he needs to make his case as one of the greatest guitarists in history.  The way in which he plays off of the often breathtaking drum work of Neil Peart is the main reason why Rush's overall success was unavoidable.  After just a brief listen to any point of the song, it is instantly clear why Peart is held in such high regard, as his fills and the manner with which he uses the entire drum kit is beyond that of almost any other drummer in history, and it is why he stands as such a legend to this day.  Rounding out the musical side of the band is the bass of Geddy Lee, and the fact that the trio is able to deploy more volume and talent that bands twice their size is perhaps the "secret" behind Rush.  Throughout "2112," the band is in top form, and the music is as important to the overall "story" as the lyrics, as the music often conveys more emotion that any other part of the song.

Though his work as a bassist cannot be overlooked, one would be hard pressed to find a singer with a more instantly recognizable voice than Geddy Lee.  While many try to simply write it off as little more than high pitched, there is a sound and emotion within his lyrics that go far beyond such a description.  Truth be told, there is no accurate way of describing Lee's voice that can do it justice, and it is during "2112's" third part, "Discovery," that one can can experience the completely mesmerizing sound that he brings in its most raw and clear form when compared to the rest of the bands' catalog.  Whether it is a more reflective moment such as this or the unrestrained near-shout that precedes it, Lee's voice seems to know no limit in terms of range or emotion, and it is this ability that adds even more depth to the bands' music.  As if his vocals were not enough to bring in the listener, the overall saga that is "2112" stands today as one of the most complete and unforgettable musical tales ever recorded.  Set during what turns out to be a futuristic uprising, it represents the most ideal blend of music and science fiction ever recorded, and yet that the same time, the level of "rock majesty" cannot be denied.  From the simple thought of "...listen to my music, hear what it can do..." to the far darker, almost Orwellian words during the "Temples Of Syrinx" movement, the limitless feel of the mood and words perfectly reflects Lee's boundless vocal talents.

Though it is often lost in the sheer length of the song, musically, "2112" was nothing short of revolutionary in its own right, as it is here that Rush finally brought the sound they'd been working on to brilliant fruition.  While their first two albums boasted songs that were either hard rock OR progressive rock in nature, throughout "2112," the band blends the two together in an unprecedented fashion.  Their clear disregard for all musical norms at that point in history are what makes "2112" even more of an achievement, and one can trace the sounds of bands ranging from Primus to aspects of The U.K. Subs to nearly every band from the 1980's metal movement back to Rush's work on this album.  The fact that the entire "2112" saga remains just as fresh and exciting today as it did more than thirty years ago is perhaps the final piece that sets the band in the most elite group of musicians in history, and cements their individual places as legends on their respective instruments.  "2112" brings with it an ebb and flow unlike any other song ever recorded, and it is this musical movement that keeps the listener completely mesmerized throughout the entire twenty-plus minute run of the song.  From the wild sound effects to the breathtaking instrumental passages to the completely captivating story-line, there no other song that has ever been recorded that brings the same combination of exceptional musicianship and original sound and lyrics that one can find in Rush's 1976 epic, "2112."

Monday, December 20, 2010

December 20: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #51"

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(Left Click (PC) or Command-Click (Mac) to save it to your's about 75MB)

One hour of amazing music and SOME commentary from "The Guru" himself.

1. David Bowie, "Young Americans"  Young Americans
2. Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, "When Big Joan Sets Up"  Trout Mask Replica
3. Frank Zappa, "Willie The Pimp"  Hot Rats!
4. Robert Johnson, "Sweet Home Chicago"  King Of The Delta Blues
5. The Fall, "Jingle Bell Rock"  Peel Sessions, Disc 5
6. Rollins Band, "T'was The Night Before Christmas"  Lump Of Coal
7. The Rugburns, "I Hate Christmas"  Taking The World By Donkey
8. Guns N' Roses, "Mr. Brownstone (Unplugged)" Bootleg
9. Emiliana Torrini, "Summerbreeze"  Love In The Time Of Science
10. The Psycho Surgeons, "Horizontal Action"  Murder Punk: Volume 1
11. Grateful Dead, "Jack Straw"  1973/02/09, Palo Alto, CA
12. Johnny Cash & Joe Strummer, "Redemption Song"  Unearthed
13. The Clash, "Capital Radio One"  Black Market Clash
14. Joe Strummer & The Mescelaros, "Midnight Jam"  Streetcore

Sunday, December 19, 2010

December 19: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, "Refugee"

Artist: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Song: "Refugee"
Album: Damn The Torpedoes
Year: 1979

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Once in a generation, if that often, there comes along a band that quite literally cannot make a "bad" album even if they tried.  Sometimes this is due to the time period in which they began, sometimes it is due to a single member of the band, but in at least one case, it is because the entire group never lost sight of the number one rule of music: have fun.  It is with this in mind that one can instantly understand the appeal and success that Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers have experienced for more than thirty years, as their blend of hard rock, punk, and folk continues to gain new fans in each new generation, and many of their songs have become anthems of youth.  From "American Girl" to "Learning To Fly" to "The Last D.J.," the band have proved time and time again that their unique musical blend is second to none, and their live performances are as good as one could want in a "real" rock show.  Due to these circumstances, it is difficult to pin down an era, let alone and album or song that sets itself apart from the rest of the bands' work, and yet there is a certain raw feeling that one finds more present on their early records.  This is perhaps why many point to 1979's Damn The Torpedoes as their greatest work, and it is supported by the fact that the record sat at the second spot on the charts for a number of weeks.  Without a missed note anywhere on the record, one can find everything that makes the music of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers so fantastic in their 1979 single, "Regugee."

If one sees Tom Petty as a band leader in the sense beyond just a frontman, then one can easily make the case that The Heartbreakers are in the top two or three greatest backing bands in all of music history.  The power behind "Refugee" comes from its co-writer, guitarist Mike Campbell, and the tone and attitude that he brings to the core riff make the song instantly unforgettable.  There is a grind and swagger in his playing that is rather similar to a punk sound, and it is the way in which he keeps this tone, yet also brings a bluesy, Southern rock feel that makes it so amazing.  This connection to the punk spirit can also be heard in the fact that there is only a very brief solo, and there is no "wasted time" anywhere on the song.  Furthermore, the mood that is set by the organ playing of Benmont Trench evokes the spirit of bands like The Allman Brothers, and yet there is a sting to the sound that makes it completely unique.  This distinctive feel on "Refugee" goes even deeper with the percussion from Stan Lynch, as along with his fantastic drumming, an uncredited Jim Keltner adds in small fills with a shaker and other instruments that give the song a depth like no other song.  Bassist Ron Blair is right there with the rest of the band, as he winds the progression in brilliant ways, holding the song together on many levels.  The way in which the group feeds off of one another makes their chemistry undeniable, and the power that they bring on "Refugee" without ever getting "too loud" proves just how talented each of them were, and why the song remains such a classic.

In a similar way to how The Heartbreakers mix together a number of different influences, the same can be said of the vocal work from Tom Petty.  Without question, Petty possesses one of the most instantly recognizable voices in history, and it is impossible to avoid comparisons to the sound of Bob Dylan.  However, Petty takes a far more aggressive vocal approach, and this is likely due to the emergence of hard rock and punk rock in the years preceding the formation of his band.  Also sounding much like the music over which he sings, there is a swagger and attitude in Petty's voice, and this gives his songs an edge and mood that sets the band apart from nearly every musical categorization.  However, Petty has also shown throughout his career that he is one of the most talented writers in history, and the characters and situations which he creates are as pure and easy to relate to as any song ever written.  On "Refugee," Petty crafts one of the most uniquely brilliant "jaded lover" songs ever composed, and the feeling of pain and frustration that he brings is unlike anything else in music history.  Making the song truly universal, Petty almost scolds the antagonist when he sings, " we ain't the first, I'm sure a lot of other lovers been burned..." and there is a tone in his voice throughout the song that is so perfect, no other band has ever dared to make another recording of the song.

Truth be told, Damn The Torpedoes is a record that almost never happened.  In the months preceding the recording, Petty was locked in a massive legal battle with his record label that would eventually leave him bankrupt.  Staying true to himself (and in many ways, the punk spirit), Petty did all he can to try and free himself from the major label to which he was signed as a result of Shelter Records being purchased by Arista and MCA in 1977.  After the suit was settled (with Petty on the new MCA subsidiary, Backstreet), Petty quickly wrote a number of new songs, as well as pulling out some songs he made with his first band, Mudcrutch.  The fact that the songs came together so quickly, yet resulted in what is without question the breakthrough record for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers is nothing short of stunning.  While one can make the case that many work best under heavy pressure, this seems to go so far beyond that idea, that the success of Damn The Torpedoes is almost inexplicable.  Yet the superb blend of blues, hard rock, and traces of punk, combined with the extraordinary level of talent within the band members makes it somewhat understandable, as before or since, there has simply never been another group that even comes close to their sound.  This can also be seen in the fact that more than thirty years after their first releases, the bands' songs are still in regular rotation and they remain one of the largest concert draws in the world.  Though it is hard to find a "bad" song anywhere in their catalog, everything there is to love about Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers can be found in their pivotal 1979 single, "Refugee."

Saturday, December 18, 2010

December 18: Ella Fitzgerald, "Oh, Lady Be Good"

Artist: Ella Fitzgerald
Song: "Oh, Lady Be Good"
Album: Lullabies Of Birdland / Ella Sings Gershwin
Year: 1957  / 1959

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In the cases of the most elite, most talented performers in music history, one can easily argue that it does not really matter "what" they are singing or playing, as their level of skill is so far beyond that of others, that everything they attempt is nothing short of musical perfection.  With this in mind, one can look back and better understand the artist who was once referred to with the statement that, "...she could read the phonebook, and it would be a hit."  While there have been many great voices throughout history that might be worthy of such a compliment, the one that stands far above the rest, and the recipient of this accolade was none other than "The First Lady Of Song" herself, Ella Fitzgerald.  Whether she was swinging a wild line of scat style singing or delivering some of the most heartfelt and truly beautiful ballads in history, Fitzgerald knew no vocal limitations, and this led to one of the most stunning recorded catalogs in all of music history.  Due to this, it is almost imossible to pick out a single song that is representative of her wide range of talents, and yet there is a song in her catalog that has a rather strange history.  While it is certainly not uncommon for a performer to take slight variations on a song over the years, it is almost unheard of for the same song to be performed in completely opposite ways by the same singer.  Yet this is the case that one finds in the two amazing recordings that Ella Fitzgerald made of the Gershwin classic, "Oh, Lady Be Good."

The first version of "Oh, Lady Be Good" that Ella Fitzgerald released came in 1954 on her amazing album, Lullabies Of Birdland.  Though it was already a well known part of her live set, and it had made a very brief appearance as what one would have considered a "single" in 1947, it is the 1954 release that made all aware of her extraordinary interpretation of the song.  From the moment the song begins, the energy and sound are quite high, and the full band behind her seems to be doing all they can just to keep up with Ella's singing.  Her vocals are extremely far forward in the mix, and one can even make the case that there is a bit of separation between her and the sound of the band.  Regardless, Ella sounds absolutely amazing throughout this interpretation of "Oh, Lady Be Good," and it is on songs like this that one can understand what she has often been noted for the joy and positivity that she injected into nearly every song she ever sang.  Yet while the verses are fantastic here, there is simply nothing that can overshadow her phenomenal "scat" section of the song.  It was her ability to perform in this manner that made her the legend that she remains, and the dose she gives here is without question her finest studio recording of this rare talent.  Ella goes back and forth with the band at one point, as well as dropping some rhymes in the middle of scatting, and it is her ability to make things flow so perfectly that makes both her voice as well as this interpretation of "Oh, Lady Be Good" so unforgettable.

One might assume that the Lullabies Of Birdland version of "Oh, Lady Be Good" would have been more than satisfactory, as it is not only musically exceptional, but it sold well and became one of Ella Fitzgerald's most well known songs.  However, a few years later, she released a drastically different take on the song as part of her 1959 album, Ella Sings Gershwin.  At first listen, this take on the song is almost impossible to connect to the previous release.  Taking the lyrics exactly as they were originally penned, as well as an orchestration that better matches the Gershwin work, this version stands as one of Ella's most moving recordings in her entire catalog.  Somehow finding a way to make this somber song swing just a bit, Fitzgerald shows here that she was more than capable of working every part of the vocal spectrum, and the pure, honest sound in her voice is nothing short of musical perfection.  In fact, it has been noted many times that when Fitzgerald sings the lines, "...I'm just a lonesome babe in the world, so lady be good to me...," it is quite possibly the most beautiful single vocal moment that has ever been recorded.  Letting her usual "pop of joy" stay to the side on this song, the heavy emotion is quite clear, and this latter recording of "Oh, Lady Be Good" is nothing short of a masterpiece and stands as one of the most extraordinary moments in Ella Fitzgerald's legendary career.

The fact that Ella Fitzgerald was able to make two so heavily varied recordings of the same song serves as a testament to her exceptional ability in every sense of the word, as she was able to bring the ideal vocal sound and tone to both styles.  The dual recordings of "Oh, Lady Be Good" also almost serve as "bookends," standing as the two extremes of her style, and showing everything that made her the icon that she remains to this day.  Furthermore, the fact that these two takes of the same song bear so little resemblance to one another is nothing short of inexplicable, as there is quite literally no other case in all of music history where and artist has been able to achieve such a feat with both versions being able to stand on their own with equal accolades for their sound.  It is perhaps due to the fact that Fitzgerald succeeded in this task that proves the point that she still knows no equal, and why she stands so far above every other performer in the entire history of recorded music.  Whether it is her distinctive, limitless voice or the endless differences in style with which she sings, there are simply not enough words that can do justice to the level of talent that lived within Ella Fitzgerald.  Across nearly fifty years, she brought the world many of the most unforgettable recordings, as well as creating the blueprint for female performers that followed.  Due to this length of time that she recorded, it is impossible to cite a single song as her "best," yet one is able to experience the full range of her sound and skills within the two contrasting takes that Ella Fitzgerald made of Gershwin's classic song, "Oh, Lady Be Good."

Friday, December 17, 2010

December 17: Minor Threat, "Minor Threat"

Artist: Minor Threat
Song: "Minor Threat"
Album: Minor Threat (first 7")
Year: 1981

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In most cases, the "birthplace" of a certain style of music can be argued for a number of different locations, as there are often a number of bands rising simultaneously with a similar sound.  Though the style in question may have its roots in one area, there may be a few different bands that stand as the "founders" due to the way in which they performed.  Yet there is one style of music with which there is no arguing its origin, nor "the" band that kick-started the entire movement: hardcore.  Though many critics tend to improperly label is as "just punk," hardcore music has its own unique characteristics, with a base in punk being only one part.  While one can argue the "beginning" of punk in cities like New York City, Detroit, and even Boston, there is no question that the birthplace of hardcore music is anywhere but Washington, D.C., and few can argue any band being more important to the development of this sound than the legendary Minor Threat.  Fronted by the "godfather of hardcore," Ian MacKaye, and being one of the key reasons for the development and success of Dischord Records, the music of Minor Threat remains unrivaled in terms of intensity, authenticity, and influence, with everything one needs to know about the band being found on their first, self-titled seven-inch release.  Containing many of their most iconic songs, there are few tracks that better define Minor Threat and the hardcore sound in general than their 1981 song, "Minor Threat."

From the moment that "Minor Threat" begins, the attitude and mission of the music is clear, and there is a swagger and intensity that can me instantly felt when MacKaye mutters, " it faster..." over the opening riff.  The tone and mood in the guitar of Lyle Preslar is unsettling in a manner unlike anything else before it, and one can easily pick out the influences from the great punk bands as well as their peers such as Bad Brains.  Combined with Brian Baker's bass playing, the song seems to pace around the listener, and it gives "Minor Threat" and intimidating, confrontational feel.  The dry tone of the drums from Jeff Nelson heightens this mood, and in the latter part of the song, when the tempo picks up, it is easy to imagine how this song would have set a live crowd into a blissful musical fury.  The combined sound of these three players is nothing short of perfect, and there is a more concerted effort to have a melody that is missing from the music of a majority of the peers and followers of Minor Threat.  Furthermore, the band is able to bring as much intensity and ferocity to their music without using an overwhelming amount of volume or layered guitar parts, and this is another way in which the band remains unique in the hardcore movement.  The fast-paced, no frills or filler style which the group presents on "Minor Threat" stands as the very definition of how hardcore music was meant to be, and since their time, no group has been able to match them on any level.

Though due to his status within the music community, as well as the projects he has done since, it may seem almost cliché to mention how perfect the vocals of Ian MacKaye are on "Minor Threat," the fact of the matter is that one simply cannot overstate his talent, nor his importance to the development of the hardcore scene.  The firey clarity of his voice instantly sets him in a category all his own, and even on this early song, it is clear that MacKaye had a great deal to say within his music, and "you" were going to listen.  Rarely moving beyond speaking and screaming on the track, it is though his vocals that "Minor Threat" takes on its persona of being a warning to the world that hardcore had "officially" arrived, and it is due to songs like this that it was clear that the style wasn't going anywhere.  Matching the intensity of the music, there are few vocal tracks that are as perfect a rallying cry as one finds here, and the song has become an anthem of the hardcore movement.  Every line in the song is to the point and deadly accurate in describing the frustration of the restrictions that society places on "adults," and MacKaye delivers one of his most brilliantly perfect lines when he states, "... It's not how old I am, it's how old I feel..."  This sentiment still rings true in the hearts of "aging" punk and hardcore fans, and quite simply, no artist since has stated it as accurately nor in a manner that matches the authenticity and mood that MacKaye brings to "Minor Threat.

Though the band only formally existed for about three years, the collection of songs that Minor Threat recorded in that time span stand as far greater than the work that most bands released in three or four times that length.  Every song in their catalog can be seen as a hardcore classic, and the songs remain just as powerful and fresh today as they were nearly thirty years ago.  Whether the band was defining the "straight edge" lifestyle or rallying against the establishment, there was always a sense of integrity in their music and it is much the reason that the band remains so iconic to this day.  While their songs have been re-released on a number of different Dischord compilations over the years, it is almost mind boggling to consider the group of tracks that one finds on this first seven-inch release.  With eight tracks clocking it at just under fifteen minutes, the potency found on the record far outweighs a majority of albums of "normal" length, proving that there is a brilliance in the simplicity of the hardcore and punk sounds.  Every aspect of every song is completely focused to a point where the songs are almost nervously unsettling at points, and this only adds to the phenomenal moods and power that Minor Threat delivers on every song.  Though each track they recorded can be considered a classic, no song better defines the band, their sound, and everything they stood for than one finds in Minor Threat's extraordinary 1981 song, "Minor Threat."